Baltimore City Council overwhelmingly approved a proposal Monday to remove elected officials from the board that oversees the Office of the Inspector General, the independent watchdog that investigates fraud, waste and abuse in City Hall.
The charter amendment, introduced by Councilwoman Odette Ramos after concerns about conflicts of interest within the OIG advisory panel, is now slated to go before city voters in November’s general election. It calls for a drastic overhaul of the board, which consists mainly of elected officials the office may investigate and people they designate.
The proposal calls for an 11-member panel. Each of the 15 council members would nominate someone to the board, although fewer than half of members would actually see their recommendations appointed, as the chair of the Board of Ethics would randomly select seven of those nominees.
Two more appointees would be named by the boards of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners and the Maryland Association of Certified Public Accountants, with each group selecting from its own members. The last two members would be filled or designated by the law school deans at the University of Maryland and the University of Baltimore.
Ramos, who was absent Monday evening with COVID-19, said ahead of the vote that the measure came together with the help of her colleagues.
“The work we do behind the scenes matters,” she said.
The council expedited Monday’s vote in order to make an Aug. 5 deadline for getting charter amendments on the November ballot. The bill ultimately passed unanimously, with Ramos and Councilman Antonio Glover absent, but drew the objection of Councilman Ryan Dorsey during a preliminary vote.
With the council’s approval, the restructuring plan has good odds of becoming law; voters tend to overwhelmingly approve city charter amendments.
The amendment’s passage is the latest chapter in a saga that began last year when Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming investigated State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s travel, finances and gifts. The IG report faulted the prosecutor for not going through the proper administrative channels to seek approval for travel; it did not fault her for misspending taxpayer money. Allies of Mosby said the investigation was politically motivated.
Mosby currently faces federal charges for lying on mortgage applications. Cumming escorted FBI agents to the City Hall office of Mosby’s husband, City Council President Nick Mosby, last year. Attorneys for the couple argued Cumming’s actions suggested personal, political and racial motivations. Cumming has said that her office simply reviews the tips it receives.
Council President Mosby offered only brief comments on the proposal before voting in favor of it Monday evening, thanking Ramos “for her tenacity in helping to move this bill through” and ensuring that it met deadline for getting the amendment onto the November ballot.
Cumming, who has advocated for a restructuring of her office’s advisory board, expressed support for the council’s action and said she wasn’t surprised it received City Council President Mosby’s support.
“I think everybody realizes it’s an inherent conflict of interest to possibly have to investigate someone who has to do your evaluation,” she said. “I think he realizes I have a job to do, and he has a job.”
Dorsey, who introduced the 2018 charter amendment that established an independent IG office, said during the bill’s second reading that the size of the board bordered on “unwieldy” and questioned whether the council was acting too quickly to restructure a panel that had only convened in the last budget cycle.
“I think that that’s a premature scale for judging that it’s not working somehow or that it needs to be changed,” he said, before voting with the rest of the council on the bill’s final passage.
Cumming first protested that the advisory panel’s composition was fraught with conflicts of interest last summer, after the group arranged to issue her a performance review. In a July 2021 letter, she said that multiple members of the board were involved in OIG investigations.
“For these same individuals to sit on a board tasked with evaluating the Inspector General’s performance at the very least creates an appearance of bias, and could hinder the OIG from doing its job with the specter of improper political pressure,” she wrote.
Ramos’ proposal would require advisory board members to be Baltimore residents with backgrounds in law, ethics, accounting or the IG’s office. City and state employees and relatives of elected officials would be disqualified from serving on the board.
Former Mayor Martin O’Malley created the office in 2005, saying the IG would bolster transparency in City Hall. For years, the IG served at the pleasure of the mayor, who oversees the city agencies, which are primary subjects of the office’s investigations. In an effort to lift the OIG above the fray of politics, Councilman Ryan Dorsey introduced a 2018 charter amendment to make the office independent.
City voters overwhelmingly approved that measure, which called for a nine-member advisory board to oversee the office, consisting of the mayor, the City Council president, another designee of the City Council president’s choosing, the comptroller, the city solicitor and the deans of the University of Baltimore and the University of Maryland schools of law.
The group has budgeting power over the office and may remove the IG with a vote of five or more members. The law requires them to gather once a year to assess the IG’s performance.
The panel did not meet for the first time until last year.
Cumming, who was appointed to a six-year term in 2018 before the charter amendment appeared on the ballot, urged voters to support it in its entirety and celebrated its passage. Last summer, she changed course, pointing to guidance from the Association of Inspectors General that calls fully independent review boards a best practice.
After interviewing Cumming and her staff about how they choose the subjects of their investigations and their office priorities, the board ultimately gave the IG a positive performance review late last year, saying she does an “effective job and is held in high regard by the public.”
The bill now goes to Mayor Brandon Scott’s desk. Scott spokesman James Bentley said the mayor “supports a strong and independent office of the inspector general” and added they will review the specifics of the amendment once they have received the legislation.
Hallie Miller contributed to this story.
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